Who Done It? Breaking Down the Fifth Episode of ‘True Detective: Night Country’

As we near the end of ‘Night Country,’ Episode 5 gives us one last look at our (dwindling) list of suspects ahead of an inevitable trip into those caves

HBO/Ringer illustration

Spoiler warning

After four years away, True Detective returns for a new season with a sinistrous subtitle. We’re in Night Country now, and we’ll be following along each week to try to piece together, with the help of police chief Liz Danvers and detective Evangeline Navarro, who perpetrated those gruesome crimes in Ennis, Alaska. Read along for a breakdown of Episode 5.

Who Done It?

Throughout this season, Pete Prior has been a rare—perhaps the only—bit of purity and innocence in Ennis. He alone seems to have dodged the town’s darkness, projecting a sincerity and conventionality that are absent from any other character we’ve encountered. All he wants, it seems, is to be a good husband, a good dad, a good son, and—even as it increasingly conflicts with the other roles—a good cop. Ennis isn’t a place that fosters kindness, yet Pete has spent his life with a purehearted dedication to doing right by others. Indeed, we learned this week that Pete’s wife, Kayla, first fell for the former high school hockey star when he uncharacteristically blew a game—after which she learned that, without so much as a word about it to anyone, he’d done it to cheer up a player on the opposing team whose dad had just died.

This week, Pete’s innocence was finally shattered. All season long, he’s followed at chief of police Liz Danvers’s heels, palpably straining to learn from his professional hero. At long last, his questions about what caused the rift between Danvers and onetime protégée Evangeline Navarro led to the realization that she and Navarro murdered serial abuser William Wheeler years ago and covered it up. Wheeler was left-handed, Pete figures out, meaning that his right-handed fatal shot to the head couldn’t have been self-inflicted. Danvers might be a good detective, but she’s no hero.

She’s not the only one. Pete has tried throughout the season to make the best of his difficult and sometimes abusive relationship with his father, Hank. Amid a mounting pile of evidence that Hank isn’t the well-meaning cop that he has pretended to be, Pete bursts into Danvers’s home at the episode’s climax to find that his dad is just as willing to brush the law aside for his own ends. On orders from Kate McKittrick—more on her in just a moment—Hank fatally shoots the former engineer Otis Heiss. Pete responds with his own irrevocable sin, shooting and killing his father. His days of looking for the good in people are over.

Before the shoot-out, Danvers comes close to throwing in the towel on the Tsalal Arctic Research Station case: McKittrick and Ted Connelly call her into the Silver Spring Mining offices to inform her that the scientists’ deaths have been ruled not a murder but a tragic accident resulting from a slab avalanche. (Holy Dyatlov Pass, Batman.) A conversation with Leah changes her mind when her daughter asks whether she knows how bad the pollution has gotten in the Indigenous villages around Ennis—does she have any idea how many stillbirths there have been? Danvers visits the Ennis cemetery, where tiny coffins sit waiting for the ground to thaw so that they can be buried—and then she decides to keep looking for answers.

Last week, Heiss told Danvers that still-missing Tsalal researcher Raymond Clark was “hiding in the night country.” This time around, Danvers finally learns that “the night country”—all together with me now, boys and girls: Night Country!—is a term for Ennis’s subterranean ice caves. And those spirals that keep turning up? They’re markers left by hunters to warn others about thin ice above the caves.

Night Country’s answers sure seem to be in those caves. Clark, so far as we know, is still down there. And we know that Annie Kowtok was murdered somewhere inside: The recovered video of her final moments shows her telling the camera, “I found it. It’s here.” Finally, we know that McKittrick and Silver Sky Mining really, really don’t want Danvers and Navarro going in. Next week, that’s just what they’ll do, but until then it’s time for one last look at the suspects.

1. Kate McKittrick and Silver Sky Mining

A hearty welcome to the top of the suspect list goes to local mogul and Silver Sky exec Kate McKittrick.

McKittrick’s power in Ennis has thrummed beneath the surface throughout the season in ways both large and small, from her ownership of the ice rink—the town’s de facto community center turned morgue—to the fact that she holds Leah’s fate in the balance after the teen graffitied “MURDERERS” on Silver Sky’s offices.

This week, we see her summon—summon!—Danvers to Silver Sky, where the chief is shocked to find Ted Connelly waiting. (Poor Connelly catching strays: “Connelly is a political animal,” McKittrick says later on. “He’s weak, and he’s fucking her.”) First, McKittrick dresses Danvers down for an early effort to get into the ice caves with Navarro “on Silver Sky property”; then, she and Connelly present the extraordinarily dubious news that Tsalal’s scientists perished in what Connelly dubs “a weather event.” McKittrick seems positively thrilled, giddily telling Danvers, “I know it’s a relief for all of us that there’s not some killer out there on the loose.” Nothing fishy here!

As Danvers notes, it’s awfully convenient. It’s also particularly suspicious given some new evidence that Pete dug up in the tax records of the multinational conglomerate that runs Silver Sky Mining: Turns out that the LLC behind Tsalal is a partner of Silver Sky, which funds the center at least in part as a greenwashing initiative. “That means the mine bankrolls Tsalal and then Tsalal pushes out bullshit pollution numbers for them,” Danvers says. Given what we know about the rampant pollution around Ennis and its devastating human toll, the revelation raises new questions about the mine’s, and McKittrick’s, possible involvement in what happened at Tsalal, to say nothing of the murder of Annie, who was a vocal anti-mine activist before her death.

There’s not a lot of ambiguity in what comes next. Danvers tells McKittrick that she has a lead on Clark courtesy of Heiss, whom she’s secretly stashed at The Lighthouse and whom McKittrick doubtless knows has extensive knowledge of the caves. McKittrick immediately arranges a sneaky meeting with Hank Prior, telling him that if he kills Heiss, she’ll have him named as the new chief of police in Danvers’s stead. “She’s looking for the location of the Kowtok murder,” McKittrick tells Hank. “She can’t find that cave.” At minimum, this means she has intimate knowledge of Annie’s murder and that, in her capacity at Silver Sky, she wants it hidden from the police.

What is McKittrick trying to cover up by offing Heiss: the truth about Annie’s death, what really happened at Tsalal, whatever it was that Annie found under the ice, or some combination of all three? There’s just no universe in which McKittrick isn’t involved in some—or all—of the murders (let alone the pollution poisoning Ennis).

2. … Ghosts?

Just kidding—kind of. Your mileage may vary on whether you view this season’s spooky spiritual accompaniments—the jump scares, the flashes of dead-eyed zombies, the mysterious caribou stampede off a cliff, Travis’s spirit’s season premiere dance party, the reappearing orange, and so on—as an enhancement to the story or a major mark against it. Anyone who’s read Agatha Christie knows that a mystery’s seemingly supernatural explanation will be punctured in short order by the very human truth beneath the caper at hand. This late in the season, it seems clear that we’re close to the kind of culprit or culprits who can be put in handcuffs—a conclusion that Danvers has hewed to throughout the investigation.

But there’s still something going on. Many different people in and around Ennis have witnessed seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Those caribou really did run off that cliff. And just last week, Navarro had her own otherworldly moment in the dredge, leaving her with an apparently ruptured eardrum (an incident that bizarrely did not come up this week at all).

It all has me thinking a lot about another show set in a remote, icy town, where—just as in Night Country—an A-list detective comes in to solve a ghastly crime. In Fortitude, which premiered back in 2015, it’s Stanley Tucci who finds himself wading through the snow in search of the truth in a troubled town. Without spoiling too much of that series, the investigation takes a sharp turn when it becomes clear that something—something neither human nor supernatural—is affecting the townsfolk with increasingly violent results.

In Night Country, we know that the mine is polluting water for a significant portion of the Ennis area. We also know that Tsalal was hunting deep in the ice for as-yet-unknown organisms in the name of scientific discovery. What if one or the other or both of these have led to mass poisoning- or infection-induced hallucinations—or worse? Something really did make all those scientists run out onto the ice partially clothed, after all, and the people of Ennis really are seeing things that seem to defy explanation.

What if there is an explanation, and all that sinister stuff that’s been haunting the town—and the series—can be explained as the neurological aftereffects of the shady business at the mine and Tsalal?

3. Raymond Clark

After an entire season of mentions in the Who Done It? column of Ringer recaps, Clark has plummeted down the list of suspects.

That’s not to say he’s not involved—he’s still the clearest link between his onetime flame Annie and the Tsalal deaths, and it is distinctly suspicious that Clark would be the sole survivor from the research center, even before considering that he’s been on the run for the show’s duration. And Clark specialized in paleomicrobiology during his nearly two decades working at Tsalal. If one of the center’s discoveries is behind the murd—er, tragic avalanche event—he’s likely the one who found it.

“He’s crazy as shit, man,” Heiss tells Danvers early in Episode 5. “Creepy motherfucker.”

But Clark increasingly seems like a fall guy. We know he loved Annie; if Silver Sky conspired to have her killed or cover it up (or both), surely he wouldn’t have been on board. If anything, he seems like another victim of the mine’s and/or research center’s collateral damage.

4. Hank Prior

So long, Hank.

Hank has graced the list of suspects in each of The Ringer’s weekly recaps this season for good reason. His bitterness that Danvers was named chief, a need for money to woo the con artist formerly known as Alina, an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, instability in his relationship with his son (and, before that, Hank’s now-ex-wife), his relentless, wiry anxiety—none of it paints a pretty picture for Hank.

This week, we learned that Hank had been on Silver Sky’s payroll and was involved in Annie’s murder—though he insists to Danvers shortly before Pete shoots him that he only moved her body out of the cave where she was killed and had nothing to do with the murder itself. I’m inclined to believe him: “I’m not a killer,” Prior tells McKittrick after she tells him to take out Heiss—seeming confirmation that he really wasn’t behind Annie’s murder, or any others that McKittrick is aware of.

At that point, anyway: It’s not long before he shoots Heiss. (Good for Heiss, I guess, that he got one last go-around with his beloved heroin, courtesy of Danvers, who squirrels him away from The Lighthouse in a joint intel-smack excursion. “Don’t leave a mess,” she instructs him as he slips into her bathroom. Standard police technique, am I right?) Prior Sr. is hardly heading into the great beyond with a clean conscience, but it at least doesn’t look like he harmed Annie or the Tsalal group.

Galaxy-Brained Theory of the Week

“She’s awake!” the various creeps and creepies of Ennis have told us repeatedly. While I’m tempted to write off the warning as mass delusion (see: ghosts), the fact that we keep hearing about this evidently fearsome “she”—whose awakening seems to have portended all the horror we’ve witnessed this season—seems significant.

I think we can rule out mortals for this particular role. Could she be the one-eyed polar bear—some protective, and perhaps freshly vengeful, spirit that has long lain dormant beneath Ennis? Speaking of beneath—well, I guess we’ll find out next week.

Vikram’s Alaska Corner

True Detective: Night Country takes place in the cold fringes of the Last Frontier, otherwise known as Alaska. (Never mind that the season was filmed in Iceland.) The Ringer’s own Vikram Patel is a former resident of the state who still spends his winters there. Each week, we’ll pose a question to Vikram about his second home as we look to learn more about the local geography and culture.

Claire: This week’s episode dealt with a whole lot of ice—most of it perilous. We see Rose Aguineau and Evangeline Navarro use an ax to hack a hole through thick ice so that Eve can scatter her sister’s ashes, only for her to wander a few steps too far and have the ice crack beneath her and nearly give way. And we finally learn what the “night country” refers to: a network of subterranean ice caves that we’re told are wildly dangerous and filled with jagged ice that cuts like glass (but that, teens being what they are, still draw out the kids to mess around and explore from time to time). Ice now feels less like a backdrop and more like a direct threat to the Night Country crew. While I recognize that Ennis’s anthill of spooky ice tunnels is probably not the norm, what can you tell me about living with the realities of ice in Alaska?

Vikram: I’ve had only one encounter with an ice cave. And after I tell you about it, I think you’ll understand why.

Many years ago, when I was new to Alaska, I went on a summertime hike up to Raven Glacier with a few friends. It’s a few miles off the Seward Highway, just outside Anchorage. (Some locals like to say that one of the best things about Anchorage is that it’s only a short drive from Alaska.)

The glacier was huge—a thick, jagged layer of ice crawling over the mountain we had just hiked up. It looked still, but it was talking to us. We heard little cracking sounds in the distance, regular reminders that glaciers aren’t frozen in place, but rather a slow-moving river of ice.

As we got closer, the air became measurably cooler. It’s a remarkable effect, the kind of moment in nature that reminds you how helpless you are. This chunk of ice was changing the weather. It was powerful.

Once at the edge of the glacier, we scoped out what seemed to be a small opening under a brim of overhanging ice.

Courtesy of Dave McGee

After a few minutes, we got curious and squeezed through, into a cave about the size of a one-bedroom apartment, tucked under many tons of glacier ice. Inside, it was stunning; the blue was deep, the air even chillier. The inside of an ice cube. We had never done anything like this before.

Courtesy of Dave McGee

We spent the next 10 or 15 minutes inside our frozen hideaway and probably would have stayed much longer, but we had to head back soon—a friend was waiting for us on a nearby ridge. But as we made our way to the entrance of the ice cave, we heard a crack—this time, a little louder and a lot closer—just overhead. Oh shit. We walked faster. Then another crack, even louder. Run. The entrance to the cave was collapsing.

In my memory, the next few things happened almost instantaneously. We shot out the entrance. Me first, then Rob, then Dave. I tripped a few feet outside the entrance and fell to the ground. Rob, at full speed, passed by me. I looked over my shoulder and saw a chunk of glacier ice—probably two-thirds the size of a Subaru—falling from about 30 feet above Dave’s head as he lunged out of the mouth of the cave. I couldn’t tell whether he was clear of the ice or about to be crushed by it.

For a moment, I thought Dave was a goner.

Today, 17 years later, it’s still the scariest moment of my life. His too.

“I remember the feeling that things were falling behind me. I could feel the force of something hitting the ground just behind my feet. I’ve probably never moved as fast in my entire life, even though it was over wet rocks.”

Courtesy of Dave McGee

I called Dave recently to help confirm my memory. We hadn’t talked about that day at Raven Glacier in a long time. I told him I wanted to talk about True Detective: Night Country and how Episode 5 involves a network of ice caves. I tried to keep explaining the context, but he interrupted me. “Just hearing that—ice caves—makes my body shiver.”

We compared memories. Dave remembers seeing me fall and look back at him. I sure hope he can’t remember the look on my face.

“It was literally fractions of a second between life and death. Tons of ice falling right on top of me. Even if I had survived the initial blow, it would have been impossible to recover a body under there.”

After Dave scrambled away, the three of us came together. “We all looked around, at the ice, at each other. Someone said, ‘Holy shit.’”

I remember hugging—desperate hugging.

A few minutes later, we turned to leave. “We had a long, solemn walk down that hill, having a lot of thoughts about mortality.”

During that walk so many years ago, and again this week on the phone, we wondered aloud whether we had caused the collapse. “It had to be us, right? The odds seem too incredible that that piece of ice happened to fall right then. I mean, how many years does it take for a cavern like that to form? And then it collapsed … right then?”

The moment has stayed with Dave, who now lives in Chicago with his wife and their three children. “I think about it still, usually when I look at my kids’ faces. They wouldn’t exist if I had been a step slower—or if I had slipped on a wet rock. My wife would have had a different life. My kids wouldn’t be here.”

Dave doesn’t tell this story much anymore. But before he moved away from Alaska, it came up a lot. Especially with newcomers. “It obviously changed the way I look at glaciers, especially as a place of recreation. After that, I would tell anyone new to Alaska to stay away from them.

“But people ignored me. They went exploring still.” That’s the power of the ice.

Iconic True Detective Looks of the Week

Underneath the true crime mysteries at the forefront of each season, True Detective is admirably devoted to capturing the aesthetics that define each of its many eras. With that comes some pretty incredible costume and makeup work, which we’ll be highlighting throughout the season.

HBO

Right out of the gate, we have the woman in charge of cremating Julia Navarro—a somber duty that nevertheless seems to require some funk.

HBO

Could there be a clearer representation of Pete’s attempt and failure to hold on to the last shreds of his innocence than his decision to rock his old high school hockey sweater as Kayla is kicking him out of their home?

HBO

Leah doubles down on her activism against Silver Sky Mining, culminating in her arrest. “Coop! Book me, will you?” Has a teen ever said anything more metal?

HBO

It’s about time that we got a refresh of “heroin chic.”

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